Genesis cover

Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, and includes a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

 
The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit.

 
The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.
 

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs." --San Antonio Express-News


Scroll down for today's updates.

New Hubble data baffles cosmologists about universe’s expansion rate

The uncertainty of science: New and very firm data from the Hubble Space Telescope on the universe’s expansion rate conflicts with just-as-firm data obtained by Europe’s Planck astronomical probe.

According to Planck, the present universe should be expanding at a rate of 67 kilometers per second per megaparsec. According to Hubble, the actual expansion rate is 74 kilometers per second per megaparsec.

And according to the scientists involved, both data sets are reliable and trustworthy, leaving them baffled at the difference.

“This is not just two experiments disagreeing,” explained [lead researcher and Nobel laureate Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland.] “We are measuring something fundamentally different. One is a measurement of how fast the universe is expanding today, as we see it. The other is a prediction based on the physics of the early universe and on measurements of how fast it ought to be expanding. If these values don’t agree, there becomes a very strong likelihood that we’re missing something in the cosmological model that connects the two eras.”

Ya think? Any cosmologist who claims we really understand what is going on, based on our present fragile and very limited knowledge, is either fooling him or herself or is trying to fool us.

I should note that there seems to be an effort, based on the press release above as well as this second one, to downplay the amount of uncertainties that exist in this cosmological work. Both releases fail to note that when scientists announced their first expansion rate estimate from Hubble’s first data back in 1995, those scientists claimed with absolute certainty that the expansion rate was 80 kilometers per second per megaparsec. At the time some scientists, led by the late Allan Sandage of the Carnegie Observatory, disputed this high number, claiming the number could be as low as 50. Some even said it could be as low as 30 kilometers. Sandage especially found himself poo-pooed by the cosmological community for disputing that the 80 number pushed by Hubble’s scientists in 1995.

In the end, the Hubble scientists in 1995 were closer to today’s Hubble number than Sandage, but his estimate was not wrong by that much more, and he was right when he said the number had to be lower. Either way, Hubble’s modern estimate of 74 for the present expansion rate is very well constrained, and is a far more trustworthy number than previous estimates.

However, do we know with any reliability what the expansion rate was billions of years ago? No. Cosmologists think it was faster, based on supernovae data, which is where the theory of dark energy comes from. It is also where Planck’s predictions come from.

That early expansion rate, however, is based on such tentative data, containing so many assumptions and such large margins of error, that no serious scientist should take it too seriously. It suggests things, but it certainly doesn’t confirm them.

This is why their faith in the numbers derived from Planck puzzles me. It is based on a “prediction,” as Riess admits in the quote above, which means it is based on a theoretical model. It is also based on that very tentative early supernovae data, which makes it very suspect to me.

The Hubble data is real data, obtained by looking at nearby stars in a very precise matter. Its margin of error is very small. It contains only a few assumptions, mostly involving our understanding of the Cepheid variable stars that Hubble observed. While skepticism is always called for, trusting this new Hubble data more is perfectly reasonable.

In the end, to really solve this conflict will require better data from the early universe. Unfortunately, that is not something that will be easy to get.

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DOJ settles with company that faked tests which caused two Taurus launch failures

The Justice Department has reached a settlement with the company that had faked test results which caused faulty components to be installed on Orbital ATK’s Taurus rocket, eventually causing two consecutive launch failures.

SPI agreed to plead guilty to one count of mail fraud while SEI entered into a deferred prosecution agreement. SPI will pay $34.1 million in combined restitution to NASA, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and commercial customers, and forfeit $1.8 million in “ill-gotten gains.” The company will also pay an additional $6 million to NASA and $5 million to MDA as part of a separate civil settlement.

The companies acknowledged that SPI altered test results for nearly two decades, starting in the mid-1990s, such that aluminum extrusions that had failed mechanical properties testing instead appeared to have passed. Dennis Balius, a testing lab supervisor at SPI who led the effort to falsify test results for a number of years, pled guilty on separate charges in 2017 and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Those aluminum components were sold to a number of companies, including those who had contracts with NASA and MDA. The Justice Department statement noted that the components were used in frangible joints in launch vehicles and missiles. Such joints are used in vehicle separation systems.

“NASA maintains that SPI’s manufacturing processes lacked sufficient controls and produced extrusions unable to pass mechanical properties testing,” the Justice Department stated. “NASA further maintains that it identified SPI’s out-of-specification extrusions as the cause of two failed rocket launches, which resulted in the loss of important scientific missions.” SPI disputed those claims, although NASA has barred the company from contracting.

The worst part of this story is that it likely ended up destroying Orbital ATK, an innocent party to this fraud Though the company lives on now as a division within Northrop Grumman, it never quite recovered from the two Taurus launch failures in 2009 and 2011. Customers went elsewhere, and the company’s launch business dried up. The only customer Orbital ATK was able to muster afterward was NASA, and the number of launches this provided was not enough, causing company’s eventually absorption by Northrop Grumman.

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Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of makng the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

 
The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.


He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

 
Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit.
 

Hayabusa-2 confirms man-made crater on Ryugu

In a planned fly-over of Ryugu yesterday Hayabusa-2 took its first direct images of the location where it had fired an explosive projectile and thus confirmed the creation of a man-made crater by that projectile.

“The asteroid’s terrain has clearly been altered,” said Yuichi Tsuda, an associate professor at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Hayabusa2, which began its descent toward the asteroid Wednesday afternoon, captured images of its surface to determine the existence of the crater after it successfully shot a metal projectile at Ryugu on April 5 in an experiment deemed the first of its kind.

According to the JAXA, the probe photographed the area hit by the projectile from a distance of 1.7 km. The agency compared images of the asteroid’s surface before and after the shooting of the projectile to determine the presence of a man-made crater.

They have not yet released any of these images. They will use them however for planning a touchdown and sample grab within this crater in next few months.

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Another spectacular landslide found on Mars

Landslide in Hydraotes Chaos
Click for full image.

Cool image time! In perusing the April image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I came across the image above, cropped and reduced to post here, of the discovery of another landslide within Hydraotes Chaos, one of the largest regions of chaos terrain on Mars. The image above was taken on February 9, 2019, and has since been followed up with a second image to create a stereo pair.

This is not the first landslide found in Hydraotes Chaos. I highlighted a similar slide on March 11. Both today’s landslide as well as the previous one likely represent examples of gravitational collapses as shown in this science paper about Martian ground water. Some scientists have proposed that Hydraotes Chaos was once an inland sea, and as the water drained away the loss of its buoyancy is thought to cause this kind of landslide at the base of cliffs and crater rims.

The past presence of water also helps explain the soft muddy look of this landslide. When this collapse occurred the material was likely saturated with water. Today it is most likely quite dry and hardened, but when it flowed it flowed like wet mud. Its size, almost a mile long and a quarter mile across, speaks to Mars’s low gravity, which would allow for large singular collapses like this.

Hydraotes Chaos itself is probably one of the more spectacular places on Mars. It sits at the outlet to Marineris Valles, shown in the image below. This gigantic canyon, which would easily cover the entire U.S. if placed on Earth, was the largest drainage from the large volcanic Tharsis Bulge to the west, where Mars’s largest volcanoes are located.
» Read more

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Leaving Earth cover

Now available as an inexpensive ebook!
 

Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel, is now available as an ebook everywhere for only $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit.

 

A handful of autographed, hardback copies are still available, directly from the author, for $50, plus $5 shipping. To buy one, please send a $55 check, payable to Robert Zimmerman, to
 

Behind The Black, c/o Robert Zimmerman
P.O.Box 1262
Cortaro, AZ 85652
 

The printed version of this book is now out-of-print, so when these are gone, new copies will no longer be available. Get yours while you still can!
 

Winner of the 2003 Eugene M. Emme Award of the American Astronautical Society.

"Leaving Earth is one of the best and certainly the most comprehensive summary of our drive into space that I have ever read. It will be invaluable to future scholars because it will tell them how the next chapter of human history opened." -- Arthur C. Clarke

Hayabusa-2 has begun close fly-in of man-made crater

Hayabusa-2 has begun its fly-in of Ryugu to make its first close observation of the man-made crater it created on the asteroid’s surface on April 4.

The link takes you to the images downloaded in real time from the spacecraft’s navigation camera. New images appear approximately every thirty minutes. The approach has only just begun, so Ryugu remains somewhat small in the images. This will change as the day proceeds.

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Long March 5B to launch first Chinese station module in 2020

The new colonial movement: China today announced that the launch of the first module for its space station will take place in the first half of 2020 on the maiden flight of its Long March 5B rocket.

China also announced today that they will launch Chang’e-5, their lunar sample return mission, by the end of this year, followed in 2020 by a Mars probe. Both launches will require use of the Long March 5.

The 5B appears to be a redesigned version of the 5, which has launched twice but failed on its second launch in 2017. Since then all launches of the Long March 5 ceased, with hints in the press that the failure occurred because the rocket’s first stage engines had badly underperformed and required a complete redesign. This redesign caused significant delays in the launch of Chang’e-5, China’s space station, and its Mars probe.

Today’s announcements suggest that that engine redesign is probably complete, and that they are now ready to resume Long March 5 launches, including the upgraded and revised 5B.

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Starliner does first splashdown recovery tests

Capitalism in space: Though Boeing intends to bring its manned Starliner capsule down on land, it has begun water recovery tests of the capsule, working in conjunction with Air Force recovery teams, to prepare for the possibility that it might sometimes have to splashdown in the ocean.

While the article reviews the tests, it also contains this interesting piece of information:

While today’s test was the first in-water practice run for Starliner at sea rescue, it represents a much larger DoD commitment to space crew rescue operations – universal procedures that would be followed for Starliner, Dragon, and Orion.

During ascent for Starliner, Dragon, and Orion, the 304th Rescue Squadron will have two teams stationed along the east coast of the United States, one at Patrick Air Force Base (just South of the Cape) and the other in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Patrick team, Rescue 1, will be responsible for on-pad aborts that place a capsule in the water or for aborts in the first couple minutes of flight that place the capsule within a 200 nautical mile zone from the Cape.

After that distance is exceeded, the Charleston crew (Rescue 2) would be responsible for rescue of a launch-aborting crew vehicle anywhere else across the Atlantic.

The third team, stationed in Hawai’i, (also part of Rescue 2) would be responsible for any after-launch immediate landing need or off-nominal Station return contingency that places a Starliner or Dragon in the Pacific.

It appears that the responsibility for water recovery of American manned spacecraft has been taken over by the Air Force. Up until now SpaceX has performed its own water recovery for its unmanned cargo Dragon capsules.

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Relativity gets a second launch contract

Capitalism in space: The startup rocket company Relativity today announced the signing of a second launch contract for its as-yet untested Terran 1 rocket.

Relativity, the world’s first autonomous rocket factory and launch services leader for satellite constellations, today announced a partnership with mu Space, the innovative Thai satellite and space technology company, to launch a satellite to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) on Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket, the world’s first and only 3D printed rocket.

The first contract was with the well-established satellite company Telesat. The rocket, Terran 1, is scheduled for its first orbital test flight at the end of 2020.

So, where does Relativity stand among the leaders in the new smallsat commercial rocket industry? Let’s do a quick review.

Rocket Lab is of course far in the lead. It has launched four times, and its Electron rocket is now operational.

Second in this race is probably Virgin Orbit. The company has won several launch contracts, and says it will begin launch tests momentarily of its LauncherOne air-launched rocket.

Next comes Vector Launch, though some might argue it is ahead of Virgin Orbit. This company has obtained a large amount of investment capital, has completed two test suborbital launches, has a number of launch contracts, and hopes to do its first orbital launch later this year.

After these three companies there is a pack of rocket companies, all with investment capital, tentative launch contracts, and rockets that are only in the development stages. These include Exos Aerospace, Relativity, and Firefly, with Exos probably in the lead as it has already test flown its reusable SARGE suborbital rocket.

This list does not include the pseudo-private Chinese rocket companies, OneSpace, ISpace, LinkSpace, Landspace, and ExSpace, all of whom are independently developing smallsat rockets using Chinese investment capital but working under the supervision of the Chinese government. Several of these companies have attempted orbital launches. As yet none have succeeded.

Nor have I included India, which has announced it is going to build its own smallsat rocket to supplement its larger PSLV rocket in order to maintain its market share in this new smallsat industry. I also have left out a number of European companies, all of whom are far behind but nonetheless exist and are beginning development.

Other then the already-operating Rocket Lab, all of these companies are predicting their first rocket launches within the next three years. Some will succeed. Some will not. Nonetheless, the launch pace as we move into the 2020s is likely to get quite interesting.

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First Marsquake recorded by InSight?

The InSight science team has announced that they think they have detected their first Mars quake, though it was too small to provide much information about the Martian interior.

The Martian surface is extremely quiet, allowing SEIS, InSight’s specially designed seismometer, to pick up faint rumbles. In contrast, Earth’s surface is quivering constantly from seismic noise created by oceans and weather. An event of this size in Southern California would be lost among dozens of tiny crackles that occur every day.

“The Martian Sol 128 event is exciting because its size and longer duration fit the profile of moonquakes detected on the lunar surface during the Apollo missions,” said Lori Glaze, Planetary Science Division director at NASA Headquarters.

…Three other seismic signals occurred on March 14 (Sol 105), April 10 (Sol 132) and April 11 (Sol 133). Detected by SEIS’ more sensitive Very Broad Band sensors, these signals were even smaller than the Sol 128 event and more ambiguous in origin. The team will continue to study these events to try to determine their cause.

The data so far suggests is that Mars is far quieter than Earth geologically, but any conclusions at this point would be premature.

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Pete Buttigieg: Democratic Party Fascist

If you happen to be one of the many Democrat voters who limits his or her reading to such media sources as the New York Times or Wired, you might believe without doubt that Pete Buttigieg (pronounced BOOT-i-edge), the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is not only most qualified Democratic politician running for President, he is also John Kennedy reborn, able to lead the nation into a bipartisan paradise of smart liberal polices beneficial to all!

First there is this June 18, 2018 article in the New York Times:

Far from being just the out-gay mayor of a scrappy rebounding Rust Belt city, Mr. Buttigieg is a singular politician: a Democrat in a Republican stronghold; a high school valedictorian who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and who also attended Oxford as a Rhodes scholar; a political comer who, after winning election at 29, quickly set about reversing an economic decline in this northern Indiana city, where the last Studebaker rolled off a South Bend assembly line in 1963; a Navy veteran who, in 2014, took an unusual leave-of-absence from his civic day job to serve a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

He is also one of a handful of Democrats that, in a New Yorker article, were cited by President Barack Obama as the future of the Democratic Party, an anointing whose potential ramped up this spring when, with an eye on the 2020 race, Mr. Buttigieg’s own political action committee began supporting legislative races in Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Colorado and Ohio.

This more recent April 11, 2019 article in Wired is equally ebullient.

Buttigieg brought data, flow charts, and McKinsey-esque analysis to city government—as well as a bit of philosophical humanism. Since he became mayor seven years ago, unemployment in the city has fallen, from 13 percent in 2010 to 3.2 percent last fall—below the national rate—and South Bend has seen its first significant population increase in half a century. (Unemployment has since ticked back up, to 4.3 percent.)

The country itself was in recovery from the Great Recession during those years, but Buttigieg undertook specific changes that pushed South Bend up the hill.

Pete Buttigieg however is none of the things these puff pieces say he is. Both articles are the worst and most despicable form of journalism. They tell you nothing really about this Democratic Party candidate, but attempt — for partisan political reasons — to make that Democrat appear to be the second coming of Jesus.

Let’s take a real look at Pete Buttigieg, based on what he claims he wishes to do should he win the Democratic presidential candidacy and then win election. We will find that he is not unlike Andrew Yang, another Democratic Party fascist who thinks he knows best for everyone, and thus should be given the power to rule our lives, down to the most trivial matters. And woe to us should we have the temerity to disagree with his totalitarian demands.
» Read more

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UAE’s space agency declares its Mars probe almost ready for launch

The new colonial movement: The space agency of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) today announced that its 2020 Mars orbiter, dubbed Hope, is now 85% complete and on track for making its launch window.

The Probe has already entered an intensive testing phase to ensure its readiness before the launch date, with less than 500 days are remaining for the launch. It is planned to reach Mars by 2021, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE.

Several aspects related to the design, assembly of the structure, cameras and control have been verified. So far, the Probe’s systems and components, as well as its ability to communicate with the ground station have been checked by the team. The Probe has succeeded in all the tests it has been subject to so far, ahead of the five environmental tests to be conducted on the probe from June to December 2019.

While this is likely true, we must remain a bit skeptical. Though the link goes to a Reuters Arab news source, the story appears to be entirely a copy of the press release. I know this because five different Arabian news sources used the exact same language in their stories, apparently all copying from the same release.

Thus, we don’t have any independent press in the UAE looking at what is going on here. This could be true, but who knows?

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Actor wins Ukraine election

Actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy has won the Ukrainian elections, beating the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko 73.2 to 25.3 per cent.

The official returns have not been released. These results come from exit polls. However, Poroshenko has already conceded defeat.

What happens next will be most interesting. We shall find out if Zelenskiy is the reformer he claims to be.

This article, describing a sense of frustration in Russia and Belarus because such a free election could not happen in their countries, suggests the peaceful transition of rule in Ukraine could have ramifications in its neighboring countries.

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Dragon capsule suffers problem during engine test

Bad news: A SpaceX man-rated Dragon capsule suffered an “anomaly” during an engine test today.

“Earlier today, SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test vehicle on our test stand at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida,” a company spokesperson told Space.com in a statement. “The initial tests completed successfully but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand.”

At the moment we do not have much information. We do not know if this capsule was the one that flew in March and was going to be used in the launch abort test prior to the manned mission, or whether it was another capsule planned for the manned mission itself.

Nor do we know what the problem was, or if it was a SuperDraco thruster that failed.

Regardless, this is going to cause a significant delay in SpaceX’s flight schedule. While they might be able to complete an investigation and resume flying within months, NASA will insist on a NASA-type investigation, drawn out for far longer, possibly years.

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How last year’s global dust storm changed one spot on Mars

One spot on the western flank of  Olympus Mons, August 2017
Click for full image.

To the right is an image taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) back in August 2017, cropped, rotated, and reduced to post here. It shows a particular spot on the western slope of the giant volcano Olympus Mons. The uncaptioned image release is entitled “Dark and Possibly Stationary Ripples in Anomalous Terrain.” The image was probably taken as a follow-up to this 2009 image to see if the the dark patches near the peaks and mounds as well as the strange wavy bands of light and dark had changed in eight years. As of 2017 however little had changed. The patches in the 2009 image seem darker, but that is almost certainly due to the lower sun angle causing longer shadows.

The slope goes downhill to the left. The wavy bands are thought to be geological layers exposed by erosion. The cause of the dark patches remain unknown.

I stumbled upon these two early images because of a third new image of this location, taken in February 2019 and spotted by me during my review of April 2019 images downloaded from MRO. That uncaptioned new image was titled “Change Detection in Olympus Maculae.” Had scientists spotted some new volcanic activity at this spot? To find out I dug into the MRO archive at this location and found both the 2009 and 2017 images.

The 2019 image is below. It is cropped, rotated, and reduced to match exactly with the image above in order to highlight any changes that might have occurred.
» Read more

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Independent study finds NASA’s Mars plans infeasible

Surprise, surprise! An independent study, ordered by Congress, has determined that NASA’s Mars exploration plans are infeasible and cannot get the U.S. to the red planet in 2033 as NASA claims.

STPI, at NASA’s direction, used the strategy the agency had laid out in its “Exploration Campaign” report, which projects the continued use of the Space Launch System and Orion and development of the lunar Gateway in the 2020s. That would be followed by the Deep Space Transport (DST), a crewed spacecraft that would travel from cislunar space to Mars and back. NASA would also develop lunar landers are related system to support crewed missions to the lunar surface, while also working on systems for later missions to the surface of Mars.

That work, the STPI report concluded, will take too long to complete in time to support a 2033 mission. “We find that even without budget constraints, a Mars 2033 orbital mission cannot be realistically scheduled under NASA’s current and notional plans,” the report states. “Our analysis suggests that a Mars orbital mission could be carried out no earlier than the 2037 orbital window without accepting large technology development, schedule delay, cost overrun, and budget shortfall risks.”

I guarantee that even if NASA got a blank check from Congress it could not make the 2037 date above either, not if they intend to use SLS, Orion, and Gateway.

This report was ordered by Congress as part of the building political desire in Washington to shift gears away from SLS and to the private sector. SLS has too many vested interests, both in and out of Congress, for the cowards in Washington to just shut it down. In order to do so, they need ammunition they can use against those vested interests. This report, though stating the obvious, gives them that ammunition, as it carries an official think tank stamp, something the mediocre minds in DC require for them to take any forthright action.

At the same time, I can see the corrupt porkmeisters in Congress, such as Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), drooling over this report. They see the gigantic budget and endless time it estimates NASA will need to go to Mars with SLS, Orion, and Gateway as a feature, not a bug.

“As such,” the report concludes, “a mission to Mars orbit in 2033 is infeasible from a technology development and schedule perspective.” The next launch window, in 2035, was also deemed infeasible because of technology development work, pushing the earliest possible date for flying the mission to the following launch window in 2037.

STPI also estimated the cost of carrying out this first Mars mission in 2037. The report estimated the total cost of just those elements needed for the Mars mission, including SLS, Orion, Gateway, DST and other logistics, at $120.6 billion through fiscal year 2037. Of that total, $33.7 billion has been spent to date on SLS and Orion development and associated ground systems.

Another $90 billion in pork, spread over twenty years! Wow, that’s exactly what many of the thieves in Washington like. This wasteful spending won’t serve the nation’s needs by making us a competitive space-faring nation, but it will distribute a lot of money to the people who donate campaign dollars to these politicians.

Which way will we go? I have no idea right now. The voters could make a difference, if the voters finally decided to clean out Congress. I see no evidence of them doing so, however, so expect bad things for the future.

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China announces plans for asteroid/comet sample return mission

The new colonial movement: China today announced plans to fly an ambitious mission to both an asteroid and comet, which would also bring back a sample from the asteroid.

The current plan, which is still under discussion, calls for a probe to visit and collect samples from the small near-Earth asteroid 2016 HO3 (also known as Kamo’oalewa). “Then, the probe will fly back to the proximity of Earth, and a return capsule will be released to bring the samples back to Earth,” Xinhua reported today (April 18), citing a China National Space Administration official. “After that, the probe will continue its journey. With the assistance of the gravity of Earth and Mars, it will finally arrive at the main asteroid belt and orbit the Comet 133P to explore it.”

Both objects are unusual. The asteroid is in a strange solar orbit that almost makes it a moon of the Earth, while the comet appears to be a main-belt asteroid with comet-like activity.

The mission is not finalized yet, so expect some revisions.

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ESA agrees to subsidize Ariane 6 should it fail to sell

The European Space Agency (ESA) has signed an agreement with ArianeGroup, the private company building its next generation rocket Ariane 6, to provide subsidizes to the company should the rocket’s inability to get launch contracts continue.

The problem is that ESA had promised ArianeGroup seven launch contracts from its various governments during the rocket’s development, but only three so far have been signed. Ariane 6, though less expensive than Ariane 5, still costs too much (it is not going to be usable), and it appears that too many member nations in ESA don’t want to pay the extra bucks when they can get the same service cheaper from SpaceX.

This lack of contracts has caused ArianeGroup to slow development.

The new agreement gives the company a financial guarantee should the additional four launch contracts not materialize.

“If seven launch service contracts are not signed by the ministerial at the end of November, then the ESA DG [Director General Jan Woerner] will propose for decision to member states to complement the revenues needed for the first Ariane 64,” said [Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of space transportation].

In other words, Ariane 6 is going to turn out just like Ariane 5, an expensive rocket that never makes a profit. Moreover, if ESA requires its members to use its cost will handicap Europe’s future space efforts.

This isn’t a surprise. I predicted this likelihood back in September 2017 when ArianeGroup first announced the prices it planned to charge for Ariane 6 launches. Those prices, for launches in the 2020s, were higher than what SpaceX charges now, and were certainly going to be more uncompetitive in the future.

It seems that Europe’s aerospace industry, both in and out of government, can’t seem to understand these basics of the free market. You have to be competitive, and if you are not, the worst way to fix the problem is pour more money into an uncompetitive product. From the get-go they designed Ariane 6 as if it was 1990, when the industry said reusable rockets were impossible. The result is a rocket no one wants to buy, because everyone knows that by the mid-2020s they will have many inexpensive reusable rockets to choose from. Why buy an overpriced dinosaur?

So, instead of pouring subsidies into Ariane 6, as designed, ESA should be demanding for its money new designs from ArianeGroup that make the rocket cheaper to launch.

Europe does not appear to be doing this, however, so expect Europe to be badly crippled in the upcoming 21st century space race.

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Hubble celebrates 29 years in orbit

Hubble's 29th anniversary image

Click for full image.

In celebration of the 29th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) that operates the telescope has released a new image of one of the more spectacular astronomical objects in the southern hemisphere, what astronomers have dubbed the Southern Crab Nebula. I have cropped and reduced the image slightly to post it to the right.

The nebula, officially known as Hen 2-104, is located several thousand light-years from Earth in the southern hemisphere constellation of Centaurus. It appears to have two nested hourglass-shaped structures that were sculpted by a whirling pair of stars in a binary system. The duo consists of an aging red giant star and a burned-out star, a white dwarf. The red giant is shedding its outer layers. Some of this ejected material is attracted by the gravity of the companion white dwarf.

The result is that both stars are embedded in a flat disk of gas stretching between them. This belt of material constricts the outflow of gas so that it only speeds away above and below the disk. The result is an hourglass-shaped nebula.

The bubbles of gas and dust appear brightest at the edges, giving the illusion of crab leg structures. These “legs” are likely to be the places where the outflow slams into surrounding interstellar gas and dust, or possibly material which was earlier lost by the red giant star.

The outflow may only last a few thousand years, a tiny fraction of the lifetime of the system. This means that the outer structure may be just thousands of years old, but the inner hourglass must be a more recent outflow event. The red giant will ultimately collapse to become a white dwarf. After that, the surviving pair of white dwarfs will illuminate a shell of gas called a planetary nebula.

Hubble first revealed this nebula’s shape in a photograph taken in 1999.

The telescope was initially designed for a fifteen year mission. It is about to double that, assuming its last remaining gyroscopes can hold on through next year.

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Blue Origin leases old unused NASA engine test stand

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin has finalized a lease agreement with NASA to refurbish and use one of its old engine test stands, sitting idle since 1998.

Under a Commercial Space Launch Act agreement, Blue Origin will upgrade and refurbish Test Stand 4670, at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to support testing of their BE-3U and BE-4 rocket engines. The BE-4 engine was selected to power United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle – both being developed to serve the expanding civil, commercial and national security space markets.

“This test stand once helped power NASA’s first launches to the Moon, which eventually led to the emergence of an entirely new economic sector – commercial space,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard. “Now, it will have a role in our ongoing commitment to facilitate growth in this sector.”

Constructed in 1965, Test Stand 4670 served as the backbone for Saturn V propulsion testing for the Apollo program, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Later, it was modified to support testing of the space shuttle external tank and main engine systems. The facility has been inactive since 1998.

According to the press release, Blue Origin gets this stand essentially for cost. It will pay for the refurbishment and any costs incurred by NASA, but other than that NASA is not charging them a fee.

While I strongly support the concept of the government helping private enterprise, this deal has some aspects that concern me. Is Blue Origin going to be the only one allowed to use this test stand? If so, it appears that NASA is favoring Blue Origin over all other private companies, something it should not do. If Blue Origin’s work will make this stand useful again for everyone else, great. If instead NASA is essentially giving it its own private test stand for practically free, then not so great.

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International payloads will fly on China’s Chang’e-6 lunar sample return mission

The new colonial movement: China today announced that it is reserving space on its Chang’e-6 lunar sample return mission for international experiments.

The orbiter and lander of the Chang’e-6 mission will each reserve 10 kg for payloads, which will be selected from both domestic colleges, universities, private enterprises and foreign scientific research institutions, said Liu Jizhong, director of the China Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center of the CNSA, at a press conference.

I suspect that the majority of these experiments will be Chinese, but I am also sure that China will get at least one international partner.

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Five exoplanets discovered with orbits from 15 to 40 years long

Twenty years of observations have now resulted in the discovery of five exoplanets with long solar orbits ranging from 15 to 40 years.

“As early as 1998, a planetary monitoring programme was set up and carried out scrupulously by the many … observers [using the EULER telescope belonging to Geneva University, Switzerland,] who took turns every two weeks in La Silla [Chile] for 20 years”, says Emily Rickman. The result is remarkable: five new planets have been discovered and the orbits of four others known have been precisely defined. All these planets have periods of revolution between 15.6 and 40.4 years, with masses ranging approximately from 3 to 27 times that of Jupiter. This study contributes to increasing the list of 26 planets with a rotation period greater than 15 years.

The press release is very poorly written. It does not explain how 21 years of observations pinpointed the orbit of an exoplanet of forty years. I suspect they have seen enough of the star’s wobble to extrapolate that orbit, but the press release should have explained this.

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